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Providing Hope in Rural Alabama

By Todd Post
April 2010

Frances Ford is determined not to let Perry County, AL, go without health care. A registered nurse, Ford lives in Marion, the county seat, where she grew up and attended Judson College.

In 2001, Ford left her job at a hospital in Selma, an hour's drive away, to work for the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as the coordinator of its Sowing Seeds of Hope project in Perry County. Sowing Seeds of Hope is part of the Together for Hope effort, which operates in some of the poorest counties in the United States, all rural. The project enables Ford to connect her professional skills with her faith to serve the community she loves.

Poverty is often described as a vicious cycle, and that's how Perry County has experienced it. Communities need a strong base of people with jobs that pay enough to support a family – people who can buy from local businesses and pay taxes to sustain public facilities. If there are not enough such families, communities can lose essentials such as hospitals and supermarkets. In turn, these losses harm other businesses and discourage new businesses from coming to the area.

Perry County's only hospital closed in 1998. David E. Potts, president of Judson College, explains, "Imagine how it feels to meet with a young person and her parents interested in coming to our college, knowing that if she gets ill, the closest [medical] facility is an hour away."

One nurse by herself can't make up for the loss of a hospital, but Ford knows the people in her community, and they know her, which multiplies her effectiveness in ways that may be impossible to quantify. Her own back-of-the-envelope estimates are that she touches 7,000–8,000 people per year with her nursing skills, advising and cajoling people to take care of themselves.

Ford conducts health fairs and runs a clinic in Marion. Less formally, she talks with everyone she sees about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise. At the clinic, she screens patients for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, helps them get the medication they need, and helps them arrange transportation to visit specialists in Selma or further away – often a necessity since Perry County has just three physicians in family practice.

Overall, Ford thinks she has been successful in convincing people to take their health care seriously. After visiting the clinic, a patient who had turned 50 asked her doctor for a colonoscopy because Ford said that people her age should have one as a preventive measure. The doctor said that it wasn't necessary – she wasn't experiencing any symptoms. The patient responded that she didn't want to wait for trouble to start – her father had died of cancer, so she had seen it for herself.

One of Ford's most ingenious efforts so far has been using the radio to reach members of the community. In the 15-minute call-in show, "Body Love," that she hosts on a local station, Ford takes calls from listeners and dispenses information about preventive health care and good eating habits. Callers ask her questions about everything from how to read food labels to how to cook soul food in more healthy ways. In one exchange, she encouraged a caller to try baking her catfish instead of frying it and asked her to call back next week to report to other listeners on how it tasted and whether the seasoning worked as well as Ford said it would. In other conversations, she invited listeners to join her in a group fitness walk and to drop by the clinic for free blood pressure screenings.

As one of the many people of faith who have returned to help the communities where they grew up, Ford serves on the front lines against despair in rural America.

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